Obtained by Global News under access-to-information laws, memos and briefing material shared with Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen ahead of a planned Jan. 18, 2018, meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — which was cancelled at the last minute — raised the Safe Third Country Agreement as a key issue and described efforts to create a new steering group to address “immigration issues.”
“With the recent influx of asylum seekers to Canada, the Safe Third Country Agreement is no longer working as intended,” the memo prepared for Hussen states.
“Asylum seekers are evading the Canada-United States Safe Third Country Agreement by crossing into Canada between ports of entry where the agreement does not apply. This has brought to our attention gaps that may be creating a pull factor for people to cross illegally into Canada.”
The release of the memo comes as spring nears across much of Canada, raising questions about whether there will be an increase in the number of irregular migrants crossing the border following data last year that appeared to suggest an increase between winter to spring.
Data from immigration officials show that in 2018, irregular crossings in January and February stood at 1,517 and 1,565 respectively.
Those increased in March, April and May to 1,970, 2,560 and 1,869.
However, data available so far in 2019 show only 888 irregular migrants were intercepted by RCMP in January, so it is not possible to predict whether warming weather this year will also see an increase in the number of claimants walking across the border.
Data from 2017 did not show significant spikes between winter and spring.
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Several months later, Hussen struck a positive tone during a press conference in May 2018 in which he praised the Safe Third Country Agreement as a “great tool” and “amazing experience.”
When asked during that press conference if he was trying to get the agreement changed, Hussen repeatedly dodged questions following a statement from the Department of Homeland Security that it was evaluating a proposal from Canada to amend the agreement.
He also denied any “formal negotiations” taking place on potential changes to the agreement.
He acknowledged it was the subject of ongoing talks though would not describe what those encompassed.
However, the memo prepared for Hussen months prior to that press conference described efforts underway at the time to create what officials called an “Assistant Deputy Minister-Assistant Secretary Steering Committee on Immigration Issues” between Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Department of Homeland Security.
While details on the proposal are scant, the memo for Hussen advised he tell Nielsen that “my department fully supports the idea of developing a bilateral structure, at the senior level, for our ongoing engagement on these issues.”
It goes on to note Hussen’s officials were pleased with a framework for the group that had apparently been provided previously by the Department of Homeland Security and wanted to work together to “formulate a workplan that could be agreed upon.”
But the documents do not make clear whether the Safe Third Country Agreement would be one of the “immigration issues” up for discussion at the proposed steering committee between the two governments, and Canadians officials have not responded to requests to confirm whether it was ever actually created.
Global News reached out to Hussen’s office asking for comment but was directed to contact Border Security and Organized Crime Minister Bill Blair.
Responsibility for the Safe Third Country Agreement and any changes to it were assigned to Blair last fall.
Since then, Blair has said he sent a letter to Nielsen asking to engage American officials on ways to “improve and enhance” the Safe Third Country Agreement.
But he has, like Hussen, not been publicly critical of whether the deal is actually working.
Global News reached out to his office with three specific questions for the minister: what is the status of talks on the agreement, does Blair believe the agreement is still working as intended, and for more information on the proposed steering committee.
His office did not provide any specifics.
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“Canada has a long and proud tradition of providing protection to the world’s most vulnerable people. Ultimately, this is an issue of fairness and making sure the rules are being properly followed to uphold the integrity of our shared border,” wrote Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux, press secretary for Blair, in an email.
“The STCA remains an important tool for Canada and the U.S. to work together on the orderly handling of asylum claims made in our countries.”
Cadieux continued, adding that Blair has met with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. senators, and continues to engage with Nielsen to “discuss issues related to our commitment to securing our perimeter.”
When pressed for more specifics, Cadieux acknowledged that “we are in a different environment than we were when the agreement was signed in 2004,” but would not specifically address the question of whether the agreement is working as intended.
“Minister Blair is in discussion with his U.S. counterparts to address the loophole that permits people to avoid the provisions in the STCA and improve the way the ‘anchor relative exception’ is defined and applied,” she said.
That exception allows relatives of irregular migrants with unprocessed claims to use the irregular migrant’s claim to effectively “anchor” their own asylum application when they, in turn, appear at the border.
Cadieux did not respond to a third request for answers on the status of the steering committee.
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